Author: Today in World War I

British Raid Kronstadt

One of the boats that participated in the raid on Kronstadt, pictured in June.

August 18 1918, Kronstadt–While the Russian threat to Estonia had largely passed, thanks in large part to the intervention of the Royal Navy, the Baltic Fleet in Kronstadt remained a threat.  On August 18, British officer Augustus Agar led a raid on Kronstadt with seven motor boats.  Technically, these boats were under the command of the Foreign Office, not the Royal Navy; while dealing a significant blow to the Baltic Fleet was certainly hoped for, the justification to the Foreign Office was that the attack would serve as cover for the retrieval of one of the last British spies in Russia, Paul Dukes.

Six boats slipped past the Russian sentry boat at the entrance of Kronstadt harbor, while Royal Navy ships waited offshore in case the Russians sortied.  The British sank a submarine support ship and dealt heavy damage to the pre-dreadnought Andrei Pervozvanny (which was eventually scrapped as a result).  They claimed to hit the dreadnought Petropavlovsk as well, though Russian accounts dispute this; she remained in Soviet service until she was sunk by the Germans in September 1941.  Three of the British boats were sunk in the raid, and 24 were killed or captured.  Two men were awarded Victoria Crosses for their role in the raid, out of a total of five awarded during British intervention in Russia; one of the other three had been awarded to Agar himself for a similar raid (on a smaller scale) in June that had sunk the cruiser Oleg.

The planned rendezvous with Paul Dukes never came close to fruition; Dukes was conscripted into the Red Army and eventually escaped via Latvia in September.

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Erzurum Congress Ends

Mustafa Kemal (center) at the Erzurum Conference.

August 7 1919, Erzurum–The day after Greek forces landed at Smyrna, Mustafa Kemal left Constantinople for Anatolia, hoping to organize a resistance to the Allied carving up of Turkey.  In late July, he assembled a congress of representatives from the Ottoman Empire’s northwestern districts in Erzurum.  Over the course of its meetings, until it dispersed on August 7, it passed many resolutions affirming complete Turkish independence:

  • Turkey would not be carved up into Allied mandates or protectorates (the exact borders of Turkey, as opposed to the Ottoman Empire, were less clear, however).
  • Military occupation of Turkey would be resisted.
  • No special accommodation would be given to non-Turkish minorities, such as the Greeks or Armenians.  The provinces represented at the conference once had substantial Armenian populations, and were considered for inclusion in an Allied mandate of Armenia.  The conference itself was held in what had been an Armenian university before the genocide.
  • A new government would be formed if the one in Constantinople proved incapable of carrying out these measures.

In September, there was a similar conference in Sivas, with attendees from more parts of Anatolia, that largely affirmed these decisions.  Little resulted immediately, however.  The Ottoman Empire was in no condition to resist the Allies militarily, and Kemal had been fired from the Army for his rabble-rousing in July.  Nevertheless, the Erzurum and Sivas conferences positioned him well politically as the leader of the Turkish nationalist movement ahead of Ottoman elections scheduled for December.

Romanians Enter Budapest

Romanian cavalry in Budapest.

August 3 1919, Budapest–After committing their reserves, the Romanians were easily able to drive the Hungarians back to the Tisza.  On August 1, after receiving clearance to do so from the Allies, the Romanians crossed the river, and found little resistance from the Hungarians.  Béla Kun fled for Austria, where he was interned for a time before being sent to Russia.  A more moderate Social Democrat government took over, but it was too late; Romanian cavalry units entered the capital on August 3, and the Romanians would remain until November.  With tacit Romanian approval, the Social Democrats were deposed by more conservative elements, who supported a Habsburg restoration under Archduke Joseph August.  The Allies refused to allow a Habsburg on the throne (or as regent) of Hungary, however.  

The Romanians did not occupy the entirety of the country; they were content to leave portions out the southwest to Admiral Horthy’s National Army.  Horthy remained a rival to the conservative government in the capital, and began a “White Terror” against Communists, Social Democrats, and Jews perceived to have supported Béla Kun.

Sources include: Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I.

Racist Violence Shuts Down Chicago

A white mob hunting for black victims during the Chicago riots.

July 29 1919, Chicago–Although not as enshrined in law as in the Jim Crow South, de facto segregation was very much the reality in Chicago, including at the city’s lakeshore beaches that hot July.  The beach at 25th Street was for blacks; the beach at 29th Street for whites.  A group of black men and women attempted to swim at the 29th Street beach on Sunday July 27th, as they were well within their legal right to do, but were driven off with rocks by an unruly group of whites.  Around the same time, a group of black boys were headed for an inlet around 26th Street (featuring both hot and cold water from nearby factory runoffs), but overshot it and drifted south towards the 29th Street beach.  A white man began throwing rocks at them from the shore; one of them hit Eugene Williams on the forehead, causing him to lose his grasp on the raft.

Black men from the 25th Street beach rushed over to try to rescue Eugene, who did not know how to swim, but it was too late.  Soon, his body was recovered and brought on shore at the 29th Street beach.  The other boys on the raft identified the rock-thrower, one George Stauber, but the police officer on the scene, George Callahan, refused to arrest him, or to let black police officers arrest him either.  The black crowd and the police presence grew; the crowd demanded that Stauber and Callahan be handed over, but police refused.  Around 6 pm, a black man opened fire at the police; a black police officer returned fire and killed the shooter.  The crowd attacked whites at the scene, wounding nine.  Rumors spread quickly and white mobs soon formed across the city, attacking any black passersby they could find, wounding 38.

Violence against Chicago’s black population continued on the night of the 28th; when police showed up, the mobs quickly dispersed and then reformed a few blocks later.  Blacks retaliated against the few whites they could find in the city’s “Black Belt,” and attempted to defend themselves against threats both real and imagined.  A crowd of 1500 marched on an apartment building just outside the Black Belt where they thought a sniper was shooting at blacks.  Police searched the building and found nothing, but the crowd did not disperse.  When a brick was thrown at the police, they reacted with gunfire, killing three.

By July 29th, 17 people had been killed or mortally wounded, and at least 243 seriously injured, 70% of them black.  The same day, the city’s transit workers went on strike after contract negotiations fell through.  This left black workers without any means to commute without walking or driving through white areas of the city where they would be risking their lives doing so; they mostly stayed home.  Some who tried to go in anyway with concealed weapons for protection were arrested under a city ordinance, less than a month old, banning concealed carry. White workers who attempted to get to work were confronted by the worst traffic the city had ever seen; with the police busy on the South Side, nothing could be spared for traffic management.  The absence of police downtown also let violence spread there as well, even in the daytime; mobs led by white soldiers and sailors attacked whatever blacks they could find in the Loop.

Political leaders largely stood by as the crisis unfolded.  Mayor Thompson did not to ask for help from his rival in the Illinois GOP, Governor Lowden; Governor Lowden did not want to send in troops unless Thompson asked for them, despite fearing the consequences of another East St. Louis on his watch.  Neither wanted to appeal for federal aid, neither from President Wilson (a Democrat) nor General Wood, in command of all troops in the Midwest (another possible Republican rival for their 1920 ambitions).

Only on the night of July 30 did Mayor Thompson ask for state aid, by which point the Black Belt was running out of supplies and was, in several parts, burning due to fires set by white arsonists.  By the time order was largely restored on the 31st, 38 people had been killed and at least 537 severely injured.

Sources include: Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer.

Reds Take Ashgabat

July 22 1919, Ashgabat–The British, in little mood for continued involvement in Russia, pulled their troops out of modern-day Turkmenistan by April 1.  They left behind a large quantity of supplies for the Ashgabat government, but sent no further.  A small mission remained across the Persian border in Mashhad to guard against the Bolsheviks and Afghanistan.  The Red forces in Tashkent were still cut off from Red power in Moscow; despite the defeat of Kolchak’s offensive, his allies in the Orenburg Cossacks still controlled the Trans-Aral railway connecting Tashkent to the rest of Russia.  Nevertheless, they were still able to make significant progress against the forces loyal to the Ashgabat government, taking Ashgabat itself on July 22.  The Ashgabat government had fled to Krasnovodsk on the Caspian; its forces withdrew to Serdar.  In the fall, after the Reds secured control of the Trans-Aral, they were forced back further.

Sources include: C.H. Ellis, The Transcaspian Episode; Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War.

Hungarians Launch Offensive Against Romania

The Hungarian offensive across the Tisza, and Romanian counterattacks a few days later.

July 20 1919, Szolnok–After withdrawing from Slovakia under Allied pressure, the Hungarians turned their attention back to the Romanians, who had occupied all of Hungary east of the Tisza.  This was contrary to Allied démarches, which had placed the Hungarian-Romanian frontier a considerable distance east of the river.  The Hungarians hoped they could liberate some of their territory without Allied interference; this was bolstered by their military successes against Czechoslovakia, and hope that the Russians might attack Romania from the rear–even though the Reds in Ukraine had far more pressing concerns to the East.

On July 20, the Hungarians crossed the Tisza, achieving some measure of surprise and securing several bridgeheads.  In some areas, they made considerable gains, advancing up to 50 kilometers.  However, this was mainly because the Romanians had decided to concentrate most of their forces well behind the river.  On July 24, the Romanians counterattacked and quickly drove the Hungarians back; Hungarian morale had never really recovered since they pulled out of Slovakia.  The Hungarian offensive had convince the Allies that Béla Kun’s government was still a threat to the general peace, and they gave the go-ahead to the Romanians to cross the Tisza and remove it by force.

Sources include: The Romanian Battlefront in World War I.  Image Credit: By Renard – own work based on:C. Kiriţescu: Istoria războiului pentru întregirea României, Vol. II, ed. Romania Noua, 1923, pp. 587 ( Pygmy Wars: Soviet Hungarian War 1919 (, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Racist Violence in Washington

A handful of riders from the 3rd Cavalry arriving in Washington, likely on Tuesday the 22nd.

July 19 1919, Washington–On Friday July 18, a nineteen-year old female employee of the Bureau of Engraving claimed that two black men ran into her on the street and attempted to take her umbrella; she quickly ran away and police quickly arrested a suspect.  When, late on the 19th, that suspect was released due to lack of evidence, white servicemen (who were especially livid as the woman was married to a naval aviator) began to riot, attacking black passersby, and driving through black neighborhoods in “terror cars”, shooting indiscriminately out the windows.

Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels (from North Carolina) took no action against the sailors.  Assistant Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though he apparently “wish[ed] quicker action had been taken to stop” the violence, was soon joking about it, telling a Harvard classmate “With your experience in handling Africans in Arkansas, I think you had better come up here and take charge of the police force.” As violence continued over the subsequent days, the military (which could have stepped in at any time in the Federal district, which at the time had little self-rule) did nothing.  Daniels urged calm, while Secretary of War Baker claimed to have little authority over the situation as many of the rioting men had been recently discharged from the armed services.  Wilson had left the city for a brief vacation late on the 19th, and the District Commissioner (a Wilson appointee) refused to ask for military assistance.

Rioting continued over the next two days.  On Monday, black residents began to fight back, a departure from previous outbreaks of racial violence.  A terror car strafed the Navy Hospital before it was stopped and its occupants arrested.  A black teenager, Carrie Maine Johnson, shot and killed a police officer who broke down the door to her bedroom when searching for a likely non-existent sniper.  William Laney shot into a would-be lynch mob that was pursuing him, killing one; he would be charged with manslaughter and falsely accused of being a violent revolutionary.  Thurgood Marshall later recounted the travails of his father, Willie, who was particularly light-skinned: “The Negroes would run one place, the white folks were running the other.  So he was running back and forth.  Wherever he went, he was wrong.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Wilson (who had called his vacation short due to a case of dysentery) decided to send in over 2000 troops (and a few tanks from Fort Meade) to restore order in the District.  While there was still some violence (and at least one death) that night, the mobs were stopped, and the city was quiet the next day.  Over the four days of violence, at least seven people were killed and hundreds injured.

The Black reaction to the violence in Washington was, in some quarters at least, surprisingly upbeat.  William Trotter, president of the Equal Rights League, returned to the US in late July after a secret visit to France to investigate how African-American soldiers were being treated there.  On July 27, he told a crowd: “We believe that self-preservation is the first law of nature.  Unless the white American behaves, he will find that in teaching our boys to fight for him he was starting something that he will not be able to stop.”

Sources include: Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer

Blockade of Germany Ends

July 12 1919, Weimar–Within two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the National Assembly ratified it.  This removed the final possibility that the war might resume, and with the state of war over, the Allies finally lifted the blockade on Germany on July 12, allowing it to trade freely with the rest of the world for the first time in nearly five years.  While extensive food aid had been provided over the prior few months, only the end of the blockade brought true relief to the food crisis in Germany.

The German ratification of the treaty was understandably swift; the Allies, under no such pressure, could take their time.  Wilson hoped this would not be the case, and had presented the treaty to the Senate in person on July 10.  The initial response was underwhelming, however, especially from the Republican majority, and was not improved by an unimpressive speech that the President stumbled over.

Hindenburg Retires As OHL Disbands

July 3 1919, Kolberg [Kołobrzeg]–One of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles was that “The Great Germany General Staff and all similar organisations shall be
dissolved and may not be reconstituted in any form.”  In the weeks following the signing of the treaty, therefore, OHL (which had relocated to Kołobrzeg in February to face Poland) began to dissolve.  On July 3, Hindenburg stepped down as the head of the General Staff and returned to his retirement in Hanover where he had been until August 1914.  Groener (who had been Ludendorff’s replacement), but he soon turned over the reins to General Seeckt, who would oversee the OHL’s dissolution in mid-July and take control of the new German army, the Reichswehr, limited by the Treaty of Versailles to 100,000 men.  Groener would resign from the Army himself in the fall; both Hindenburg and Groener would have extensive political careers in their new civilian life.

Denikin Issues Moscow Directive

July 3 1919, Tsaritsyn [Volgograd]–Denikin’s armies had had great success in the last month, taking Kharkov, Tsaritsyn, and on July 3rd reaching the Dnepr.  On the same day, Denikin, from newly-captured Tsaritsyn, issued what would become known as the “Moscow Directive” to his generals–nothing less than a drive along the railway lines towards Moscow, in an attempt to end Bolshevik rule once and for all.  Wrangel would advance up the Volga towards Saratov, Penza, and Nizhny Novgorod; the center forces would move north via Voronezh, while the army that had just taken Kharkov would head towards Kursk.

This was a massively ambitious scheme; the maps he sent to his commanders discussing the plan had to be on the smallest scale possible, as they encompassed most of European Russia.  In practice, it would be difficult to follow the directive as planned; in an effort to guard their flanks and secure more territory, White forces would soon cross the Dnepr into the western Ukraine.  Supply would also grow more difficult the further they advanced.  Wrangel pointed this out, advocating for a more limited advance in the Volga; Denikin would respond: “I see you want to be the first man to set foot in Moscow!”

Sources include: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War; Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy.